Jury Life Pt. 2: Voir Dire Day 1

We were gathered, the citizens of group 45A, filling the gallery of a courtroom. In front of us there were three people — two lawyers and the defendant.

The prosecuting attorney, who I would soon learn was an Assistant District Attorney, was a tall woman, brown-skinned, with short, tightly-curled hair parted on the left side. Ms Hawkins wore a businesslike skirt and jacket in neutral browns and grays. The skirt stopped short of her knees, which I expect was intentional, but the sleeves of her suit were too short for her long arms. Her hands were also long, with long, expressive fingers. If she plays basketball, I bet she’s pretty good at it. Or piano. She mentioned later (in one of those calculated asides to make her likable to the jury) that she was almost 40 years old. I would not have guessed that.

To her right the defense attorney stood with the defendant. Ms Li also wore a skirt and suit, but was much more willing to embrace color, coming to court in blue with colorful accents. She didn’t have any physical traits that jumped out at me on that first impression; it wasn’t until she spoke that we learned her true superpower.

The defendant. Shit, just a kid. Brown-skinned, short, skinny, close-cropped black hair. Clearly coached by Ms Li to be respectful and friendly. Nice smile, shirt and tie over slacks.

The courtroom was laid out much like any other; there was the gallery occupying half the space, then the tables for the defense and the prosecution, and the jury box to the left. Some time after the original design of the courtroom half of the space between the counsel and the judge’s bench had been usurped by a large clerical area. The loss of this space to the demands of rigor and documentation led to some awkward logistics during testimony.

There was a small stuffed pig overlooking the clerical zone. It was a human touch I found encouraging.

“All Rise!”

We rose, except the defense, who made a habit of standing long before the call to rise came. Enter the judge, Nahal Iravani-Sani. “You may be seated, thank you for the courtesy,” she said. Her voice was gentle and friendly. Her wavy dark hair and olive complexion confirmed what I had assumed she would look like, based only on her name. She wore long black robes, of course.

From the first words she spoke, I could tell she appreciated the potential jurors packed into her courtroom. She recognized that the most annoying part of the process is the waiting. But before we could go any farther, we would all have to leave the room while she heard members of 45A ask to be released for reasons of hardship. “Hardship to your employer is not adequate,” she admonished.

We all left. The jury waiting room was fairly empty now; I found a seat and read some terrible space opera on my phone. That first day I didn’t want to bring anything extra — I had the nightmare scenario of having a backpack of stuff an no place to put it. Which was silly, in retrospect, but I’d rather not assume. So on my phone I was scrolling through a story that put sailing ships in space, while I and the rest of 45A that were not asking for hardship excuses cooled our heels.

Finally we were called back and there were several empty chairs in the gallery. Now it was time to get down to business. Eighteen names were called. I was not one of them. Those called filled the seats in the jury box, then a row of six chairs in front. From here on, jurors in those seats were not referred to by name, but rather by the number of the seat they occupied. Judge Iravani-Sani apologized for the impersonal nature of that policy, but told us that it was to protect the anonymity of the jurors.

Judge Iravani-Sani addressed all of us. “This case involves domestic violence,” she informed us. “While we all have strong feelings about that — of course we do — what we’re asking of you is to judge this case impartially, and to presume the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.” *

Each juror found a list of eleven questions to answer waiting on their chair. “Juror number one,” the judge said, “Please read each question out loud for the record, then your answer. The rest of the jurors need only give their answers.”

The first few questions were ordinary. “Do you have friends or family in law enforcement?” would lead to extra follow-up by the judge if the juror answered “yes”, to establish whether that relationship would lead to the juror giving automatic preference to the testimony of cops. Through this process the judge was carefully and skillfully preventing people from disqualifying themselves. “Knowing you feel that way, do you think you can still listen to the facts of the case?”

But then there was the question that asked, (something like) “have you ever been witness to, or a victim of domestic abuse?”

“No,” said Juror one. There were follow-up questions about a couple of his answers, but then it was on to the next juror. “Yes,” said Juror two when he reached the Big Question. He had seen domestic abuse. Discussion with the judge followed. It was Dad, maybe, the stories have all blurred. Can he remain impartial in this case? He said he thought he could.

On we went “No,” said juror three to the Big Question. “No,” said juror four. “Yes,” said juror five. The judge followed up as before. “Yes,” said Juror six.

I looked over to the person sitting closest to me in the gallery. He looked back at me, also wide-eyed. Six random people, three of them have directly experienced domestic abuse. By the time we got through all eighteen jury candidates, there were probably ten who had direct experience with domestic abuse.

Think about that. Remember that this courthouse is in one of the most prosperous cities in the world.

After the judge took them through the questionnaire, it was time for the lawyers to interview the initial eighteen. Whereas before it had simply been disturbing, now it got both fascinating and even more disturbing.

The prosecutor wanted to make sure that jurors didn’t hold it against the people that a domestic issue was being decided in the courts. Ms Hawkins asked each juror whether domestic violence should be reported to the police, or whether it should be handled by the family.

Holy crap. I don’t have hard numbers, but almost every person who had witnessed domestic abuse, when asked, “did you call the police?” said “No.”

“Why not?”

The answers to that were universally tentative.

Why not? There was a camp that said that domestic abuse should be handled inside the family, and that there was no cause to involve outside authority. Then there were others who said that domestic abuse was obviously a crime but even they didn’t call the cops. People who know their friends are getting beat up don’t call the cops.

It’s understandable at one level; your friend’s life is shitty enough already, and if they want the cops they’ll call for them, right? Who are you to escalate someone else’s issues?

She was sitting somewhere around seat 16 when she was first interviewed. In her fifties, or perhaps a hard forties, or even a brutal thirties. She has not had a soft life. “Oh, I have a lot to say about this,” she said. And she did. Family members on the giving and receiving end of domestic abuse, including a sister who has a tongue as sharp as shark’s teeth, and uses it to hurt. Plenty of interaction with law enforcement in her family, but none of that (as far as I could tell) was related to the domestic abuse.

The woman in seat seven, an older woman, thought that the family should handle things unless it got really serious. How serious? her questioners persisted. “Cuts and bruises, that’s OK,” she said. “Maybe broken bones? Definitely if she dies.”

Another guy, both he and his mother were beaten by his father. “But it’s OK now, they’re divorced.”

It was somewhere around then that the lawyers and the judge met to eliminate some of the first eighteen. Several were dismissed with cause; the jurors in the lower seats were shifted to fill the holes.

Soon after that, the day was over and I found a crowded bus home. I found myself with a lot to say about the events of the day, and a fierce desire to talk about what I had heard and learned with my sweetie. Alas, my lips were sealed.

The next day, I had my chance to speak.

Tune in next time for Voir Dire: Jerry Speaks his Mind!

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* Not all quotes here are exact.

Jury Life pt. 1: The Gathering of 45A

Monday morning two weeks ago, I, along with about fifty other shuffling citizens in group 45A, made the bleary trek to report to the Hall of Justice at the ungodly hour of 9 am. I chose to take the bus to town, as the Web site implied that parking was a hassle.

I tromped down to the bus stop in a light rain (the weather lingered an ENTIRE HOUR longer than my phone said it would), loaded up the transit app that gives real-time bus updates, loaded the other app to purchase my bus tickets, and then stood in the rain wearing a sweater and cargo shorts.

While I waited two men all bundled up in brightly-colored foul-weather gear, hoods pulled up over their heads, walked by. They both smiled at me, and when I smiled back one gestured at the clouds overhead and said, “Something something Amigo! Something something something!” and laughed.

I laughed also, shook my head sadly and said, “Yeah…” Even though I understood only one word he spoke, I knew exactly what he was saying. We parted friends. Or at least, amigos.

But honestly, unless hypothermia is an issue, getting wet doesn’t bother me that much. It’s an attitude I consciously adopted from a good friend of mine who went to college in Washington and didn’t carry an umbrella during gentle rains, to the bemusement of his peers. That attitude was reinforced when I started biking to work, and I realized that rain was not a big deal except for the mess — and that’s what fenders are for.

But I digress. The bus ride was uneventful. After I had I reached the Hall of Justice, set off the metal detector with my belt buckle, nearly mooned the people in line behind me when I took my belt off, and finally got through and regathered, I went up to the second floor to discover a long line of new jurors.

The line moved quickly; when I reached the front the barcode on my jury-summons postcard was scanned and I was handed a piece of paper and instructed where to go to do my next bit of waiting. I was not asked for any sort of identification. I guess Jury Imposters are not a prevalent problem. Or are they? How would we know? Is someone out there searching mailboxes for jury summons so that they can go and decide the fates of strangers? Or perhaps there’s an underground industry of Jury-Substitutes that people hire so they don’t have to report themselves.

I found my way to the Jury waiting room, which was already overfilled and people were still coming in. Department 45 was not the only courtroom seating a new jury that day, it appeared. It was warm in that room, and there weren’t enough seats, but I am still healthy enough to stand for a little while at least. But you know what happens when you pack a bunch of people from different communities into a room like that? I’ll tell you in a future episode. (Hint: that episode may or may not be called “Jury Plague”.)

After a while the announcement came for group 45A to proceed from the waiting room, down the stairs, across a walkway to the brown elevators, and back up to the second floor in the other wing to Department 45.

Yeah, the courtrooms are called “departments” at the Hall of Justice. I think that’s odd, too.

So all the people in group 45A stood and filed from the waiting room. I just went with the flow, and when the flow bypassed the brown elevators to find the stairs, I was good with that. It would have taken half the morning to get us all up in the elevator — one of the two brown elevators was in use to move prisoners.

When I say “all the people in Group 45”, I actually mean “all but one.” As we filed into Department 45 we checked in and then the bailiff had us fill the seats in the gallery in an orderly fashion. When that exercise was over, there was an empty seat. One potential juror was missing. So we waited. And waited.

After a couple of phone calls it was established that our erstwhile peer had got lost on the way from the waiting room to the courtroom, and had gone back to the waiting room without telling anyone about it. He was given new instructions and sent on his way once more. “He’ll be right here,” the bailiff said. The bailiff was a nice guy, but this time he was wrong.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting in a seat that was low to start with, and had a squishy seat. Next to me is a woman (who would become Juror #1) who was almost a foot taller than I was when we were standing up, and now the top of my head didn’t even reach her shoulder. I am not a tall man, but I don’t need to be reminded of that quite so forcefully.

Another call. More paging. Once more the stray juror was tracked down. The jury-handlers, already struggling with the surge of new jurors that day, found someone to walk 45A’s last member right to the door of Department 45.

Finally we were all assembled, and we were ready to begin. What followed was a discussion that was as disturbing as it was interesting.

Tune in next time for Jury Life Pt. 2: Voir dire!

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This One’s for Mom

A few weeks ago I was in a fabric store with the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas. My mission was to select the fabric for my holiday shirts. While I was poring over the seasonal offerings, and surprising OS with my sparkly decisions, there was a woman in the same section with her kid installed in her shopping cart.

That kid never stopped talking, and I’d guess that 90% of all utterances were questions. Mom tried to answer most of them, but deflected many.

I was in a time warp, looking at me and my mother, possibly on the shopping trip where I picked out the double-breasted suit pattern, the busy blue/purple pinstripe fabric for the jacket, and the fuchsia double-knit for the trousers of my Easter outfit when I was eight years old, give or take.

OSoMR&HBI has seen pictures of that outfit, so sparkly reindeer shirts should not have surprised her quite so much, my normal attire notwithstanding. You gotta sparkle for the holidays.

Anyway, while I was poking through the fabric options, the kid was offering up a never-ending stream of questions. Based on some of the questions, I got the feeling that we were on similar missions. While I can’t specifically remember any of his fabric-related questions, they were in the vein of “Why is it snowing on the dog?” Questions that really don’t have an answer.

Then for a while he asked simple mathematical questions, which his mother answered easily. “What is five plus fifteen?” “What is five plus twenty?”

Then he dropped the bomb. “What number do you get when you add up all the numbers?”

Getting no swift answer from his mother, the kid grappled with the question himself for a little while, naming a couple of very large numbers, quieter now as he realized that those were numbers too, and part of all the numbers, sensing rather than knowing that he was touching on a deeper sort of mathematics. He had asked a question it took mankind almost our entire history so far to even know how to ask, let alone how to answer.

I did not go over and accost mother and son and congratulate the kid on asking a massively awesome question, and tell the frazzled mom that her child was destined to grow up to be like me. She’ll find out soon enough, for better or for worse.

But I got to climb into a time machine that day, and see myself and my patient mother from the point of view of an aging man who still likes to sparkle now and then. It made me irrationally happy to know that in fabric stores, the impossible questions were still being asked.

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The Guy on the Corner

I grew up in a small town, but one of my first visits to a large city carries with it an enduring memory. A man, skinny and bedraggled, on a street corner, shouting obscenities into his hat. I was just a kid back then, and didn’t understand the tragedy that man represented. I was just perplexed. I learned, somehow, later, to be afraid of people like that — maybe the reaction of the people around me that day informed that fear. Which is awful.

Yesterday, walking down the street in San Jose, there was another man standing on a corner shouting into the air, a stream of profanity. I just assumed he was on the phone.

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I am a Juror

I have been asked by my community to sit in judgement of a neighbor. Neighbor in this usage is a broad term; the plaintiff is accused of crimes that happened in Santa Clara County, and that is where I live. But Neighbor here is not geographical. Neighbor in this case means someone who shares values similar to mine. If the dude down the street sacrifices virgins to the Great Lord of Darkness, he is not my neighbor, proximity notwithstanding.

When I sent notice to the folks who work around me that I would be out of circulation for a while, one response I got was “High five for doing your civic duty.”

I wrote back, “I actually feel strongly about that; juries are in fact a bulwark against tyranny.”

And I believe that. I believe that jury duty is a sacred trust, a bond between citizens, the last line of the law in a society governed by law. I am proud to be selected as a juror, vetted by both the people and the defense, and each has entrusted me with keeping an open mind.

Maybe this case is not one that defines our democracy. But maybe every decision by every jury does define who we are. I want to explore this more, but out of respect for the process, I’ll shut up now.

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Two Things I Learned Today

  1. MapQuest still exists!
  2. MapQuest really sucks.

I learned the former when using the Web site to report for jury duty in Santa Clara County. Links to the locations of the courthouses take you to MapQuest.

For a brief explanation of the latter, MapQuest is overrun with intrusive advertising, and the “get directions to a place” feature does not include public transportation.

My next post is likely to be observations on the Wheels of Justice. Oh boy!

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2019: The Year I Communicate

While I try to figure out where the fuck WordPress had hidden basic stuff like where I set the category and keywords of a post, I’d like to talk about the upcoming year.

Oh, for crying out loud, I’ve accidentally published this episode already, while I have yet to find how to set the category for my post. You know what the next episode will be about.

ANYWAY, it’s a new year and I have resolutions. Actually, only one resolution. Communicate. I will talk to my friends this year. I’ll drop a message every now and then. I’ll post here on the blog on a regular basis. And most important of all, I’ll start reading my email again.

I have come to hate noise. It’s why I never visit Facebook anymore. And my email is so filled with noise that I have simply stopped reading it. The terrorists (and the marketers) have won.

This year, at least I start talking again. I was never much for listening anyway, except for the comments here at MR&HBI, which is honestly the social contact I pine for the most.

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